Athletes: There's a fine line between 'dedicated' and 'compulsive'

"I know I exercise too much, but I'm afraid I'll gain weight if I don't."

"My wife thinks I'm crazy for exercising as much as I do, but I go crazy if I don't ..."

"I haven't missed a day of exercise in seventeen years -- not even blizzards or heat waves slow me down!"

Most of us are acquainted someone who seems to be an incredibly dedicated athlete. You know, the person who makes you feel like a wimp because you take a rest day at least once per week and skip a workout if you get caught in a work jam. But she or he exercises every day, at least once if not twice per day.

Chances are, this person gets lots of misplaced praise for their dedication; they commonly hear "I only wish I were as dedicated as you ..."

But the question arises: Is this person a dedicated athlete or a compulsive exerciser caught in the vicious cycle of exercising to burn off calories and control weight?

As a sports nutritionist, I spend the majority of my counseling hours helping people bring balance to their diet and exercise program. As one rower said: "I know I should exercise less and eat a better diet, but I just can't seem to do it. I'm afraid I'll get fat or out of shape. ... I just don't feel good when I don't exercise for two hours every morning. I don't even mind getting up at 4 a.m. if I have to, so I can get my row for the day. Otherwise I feel so guilty."

If these words sound familiar, keep reading. Perhaps this article will offer a new perspective to help you be gentler on yourself.

There is a fine line between being dedicated and compulsive. I define the dedicated athlete as a person who does quality exercise to improve his or her sports performance.

In comparison, the compulsive exerciser simply pushes his or her body to do exorbitant amounts of exercise with the goal of burning off calories and controlling weight. Rest days are taboo.

The drive to exercise is often associated with a desire to control some aspect of life. That is, when you can't control your spouse, job, children, parents, health, weather, or whatever, you can gain a sense of control and stability by exercising.

For some people, the price of being in control is a rigid, structured life that lacks flexibility, fun, and spur-of-the-moment living such as "let's celebrate your birthday" instead of you going to the gym again.

Controlling a part of life is one component of the drive to exercise compulsively. Controlling weight is another component. Most people think the more they exercise, the leaner they'll be.

As one woman lamented, "I should be pencil-thin for the amount of exercise I do ..." She reported maintaining her weight despite eating less than her friends, and expressed a great deal of frustration with her inability to control her body.

Like many compulsive exercisers, she ate very little during the day, but succumbed at night to the relentless physiological drive to eat.

Compulsive exercise (and its buddy, compulsive eating) is often a symptom of a bigger problem. The problem is: Why do you have such a high need to be "in control"? The root often stems from childhood experiences.

For example, many of my clients grew up with family alcohol problems. For them, the parent's drinking made like feel out of control, and now they cling to situations they can control. For others, the desire to control weight stems from family messages they weren't good enough the way they were: "You know, honey, that dress looks nice but it would look even nicer if only you'd lose a few pounds ..."

If you look back on your childhood, you can perhaps find similar situations that have left their marks. The answer comes not in running another 10 miles, sweating an extra 30 minutes on the erg, or training for a triathlon.

If your life isn't working for you, the answers come in resolving these issues perhaps through counseling or reading self-help books. You can also soften the messages you tell yourself every day.

  • Instead of pushing yourself daily to burn off calories, you can become a dedicated athlete who strives to improve performance. This means doing quality workouts, not quantity, and planning one or two rest days per week. Rest, after all, is an essential part of a quality training program.

    If you allow yourself to have a rest day, know in advance that you will be just as hungry because your muscles will be busy using the food you normally burn off during exercise to replace depleted glycogen stores. For each ounce of glycogen, your body will store 3 ounces of water. Rapid weight gain indicates better-fueled muscles!

  • Instead of trying to change your body into a perfectly lean machine, accept it for what it is -- including the bumps and bulges. Who said you have to have the perfect body? Why can't you just be human?

  • Trust that your body will not get fat on you if you exercise less. I recommend separating exercise and weight control. Enjoy exercise as the gift you give to your health. Regulate calorie intake to regulate your weight. And note: The more you exercise, the hungrier you'll get and the more you'll want to eat. Why burn off an extra 500 calories only to come home to 700 calories of fat-free frozen yogurt?

    Copyright: Nancy Clark, MS, RD

    Nancy Clark, MS, RD offers private nutrition consultations at SportsMedicine Associates in Brookline MA. Her "Nancy Clark's Sports Nutrition Guidebook" ($23) and her "Food Guide for Marathoners: Tips for Everyday Champions" ($20) offer additional weight management information. Both are available via or by sending a check to Sports Nutrition Materials, 830 Boylston St.. #205, Brookline MA 02467.

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